Imagine a mystical kingdom. Picture a land that was the template of all fairy tales ever written and to come. Paint the skies in aquamarine and fields in emerald, draw craggy mountains to outline the horizon and dot the streets with free-roaming horses, cattle and dogs whose assuredness suggests this is the domain of the four-legged. Then insert a populace, one that is famously happy and at peace.
Introduce woodland creatures, and you would be forgiven for picturing Narnia (perhaps after Aslan disrupted the eternal winter cast by the white witch). You would not be far off the mark; Bhutan is as close to the fictitious world of C S Lewis’ imagination as is possible, only the monarchy in question is a beloved royal couple and access is restricted by a high value, low impact tourism policy rather than a wardrobe door.
As if the Land of the Thunder Dragon requires even more magic to fan the fantasies of first-time visitors, the Drukair plane carrying us from Bangkok flies close to a rainbow as the pilot navigates our landing in the valley town of Paro. It is a scene straight out of Hollywood, the phenomenon so vivid that each bar of colour in the spectrum seems solid enough to slide down on. As far as good omens go, it does not get more promising than this.
For the launch of its latest high jewellery collection, Bulgari has brought us to this dreamiest of destinations, where natural splendour and word of its palpable spirituality have propelled Bhutan to the top of many bucket lists. The location befits the occasion beyond aesthetics and emotion.
The portmanteau Cinemagia is a self-explanatory collection that captures the enchantment of the silver screen. Its reveal is shrouded in secrecy, as the selected venue — the Six Senses Thimphu — had not yet been officially launched at the time of our visit. The announcement that we would not be able to geotag our Instagram posts is a reminder of a modern problem in a country that seems to be operating independent of time, yet has slowly embraced the internet since its introduction in 1999.
Perched some 2,500m above sea level, Six Senses in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu is appropriately known as the Palace of the Sky, overlooking thick blue pine forests and orchards that swathe the hillsides. Clearly visible across the ensuing valley is the Great Buddha Dordenma, the tallest gilded sitting Bhuddha of its kind at 51m, occupying a similar hilltop position. There is an ongoing project to collect 100,000 smaller bronze copies to outfit the meditation hall upon which the massive landmark rests. In a sweeping glance, guests at Six Senses take in a variety of elements that encompasses the local experience, from the abundance of untouched beauty to the ambition, persistence and beliefs of its people.
And it is here, in this oasis of luxe wooden lodges, pools and ponds that reflect an endless sky, that Bulgari unveils its film-inspired collection. Some designs draw instant affiliations with specific stars and scenes — emerald earrings Elizabeth Taylor would have adored (Richard Burton was once quoted as saying of his love interest, “The only word Elizabeth knows in Italian is Bulgari”); a large sapphire pendant Kate Winslet could have worn on the Titanic; a diamond-and-pearl tapestry reminiscent of the fluttering sails of the pirate ship in Peter Pan; a gold stacked collar with hypnotic stones right out of Cleopatra. Moods range from exuberant — with the Colour Palette necklace recreating the hues of a make-up compact in amethyst, blue sapphires, pink and green tourmalines and mandarin garnets — to punk rock expressions of the brand’s new metal: zirconium, whose black and silver sheen is juxtaposed with diamonds in an 800-hour feat to fashion the Action! necklace.
Coloured gems are a Bulgari speciality, particularly in the hands of creative director Lucia Silvestri. Personally trained in gem acquisitions by Bulgari brothers Paolo and Nicola — the great-grandsons of founder Sotirios Voulgaris — and renowned for her ability to “talk” to gems, she guides us through the collection herself, reaching out to feel each piece as though obeying a siren call. Anything worn so intimately, after all, relies on a harmonious tactile relationship between skin and metal and stones. That give-and-take is elevated at Bulgari, where jewellery links are particularly supple for fluid wrapping around wrists and necks, and the undersides of bracelets and necklaces are adorned with as much artistry as their façades.
The petite Silvestri seems almost ethereal, but it is to your peril that you allow her husky drawl and dreamy handling of the jewellery to lull you into complacency. Over dinner later that evening, Bulgari high jewellery senior director Giampaolo Della Croce regales us with anecdotes of her steely bargaining prowess, including kicking him under the table when he inevitably displays enthusiasm before suppliers. She caresses a sensual cascade of diamonds that Sharon Stone would have coveted in Casino (Bulgari did, in fact, drape the actress in gems for the movie), entranced by their sparkle. A ring with a large star sapphire is dubbed her talisman and, hungrily eyeing the 21.49-carat stone in the Emerald City necklace tribute to The Wizard of Oz, she says, “I could almost eat it”.
These glamorous, evocative pieces require poise and confidence to wear well, lest they wear you. Such is their ingenuity that they enhance certain traits of the wearer — hauteur, sensuality, elegance, radiance, playfulness. The same diamonds on Sharon Stone would take on a different character with Elizabeth Taylor.
“We are creating dreams with our jewels,” says Silvestri of the Cinemagia debut. “Stones have energy in themselves and in reaction to their wearers. Bhutan is a thrilling place to be in — it has a strong soul. As soon as I arrived, I was sorry there were no gems here. There is harmony in the atmosphere, the blend of colours, the shape of the mountains, the sound of water and birds. It is paradise, this place, and you will definitely see inspirations from here in later collections.”
It is a heady showcase of sparkle and colour, particularly resonant in this setting. The powerfully feminine collection is immediately at home in this kingdom with its firm matriarchal culture — Bhutan has a matrilineal system of inheritance, for instance.
The Queen Mother, whom we were meant to interview for her support of the Tarayana Foundation (the event was cancelled due to a death in the family), is highly regarded for her fortitude and grace, spending a great deal of her time in the early 2000s exploring her kingdom on foot. The literature advocate is also known for her progressive views, attributes shared by the current king and his wife. Throughout our time here, as we shake hands with government officials and tour guides alike, praise is lavished upon the royal family and their guardianship of the kingdom.
Judicious governing protects resources and ways of life. The rugged terrain has an impressive 70% forest canopy coverage. Most local produce owe their lushness to a disinclination for pesticides and climbing up mountains higher than 6,000m has been prohibited since 1994 as it is believed that spirits and deities call these peaks home … not to mention that neighbouring India is the closest base to call for high-altitude rescues. Isolationist policies have relaxed to a High Value, Low Impact programme that prevents The Last Shangri-La from suffering the same fate as Venice and Machu Picchu, where overtourism is destroying the very landscapes travellers seek. Under this government, Bhutan is very much for its people, further exemplified in philosophies such as no Bhutanese should be homeless in their own country.
While modernity is exercising its influence, tradition is not lost. The old ways are still relevant, such as the little need for traffic lights in Thimpu (a single policeman directs traffic flow from an ornate booth in the busiest intersection). Prayer flags flutter in the breeze, strung between trees and high up on hills where it is believed the wind carries prayers out to the world, spreading goodwill and compassion. The green, white, red, blue and yellow hues represent the elements — water, air, fire, sky and earth — as well as the five wisdoms of Buddhism.
Bhutan has its own tales of romance and tragedy too. The most famous is the local version of Romeo and Juliet, with a house to boot: the dilapidated three-storey Galem manor on the road between the districts of Punakha and Gasa. Changyul Bum Galem, the daughter of a rich farmer who lived there, fell in love with Gasi Lama Singye, a servant of the monastic order. A local chieftain, however, coveted Galem for his bride. His assistant orchestrated Singye’s transfer to neighbouring Gasa and then offered the chieftain’s proposal of marriage to Galem’s overjoyed parents. A desperate Galem confessed she was pregnant and was thrown out of the house. Lost, she waited by the Mo Chhu riverbank, begging passersby to carry a message to Singye. Word soon reached him but he arrived only to see her funeral pyre. He jumped into the flames to be with her in the ever after, and thus joined the canon of epic oratory hereditament.
Passion is a cornerstone of Bulgari, alongside values such as tradition, innovation, purity, respect and romance — all of which are found in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, cementing this humble and happiest of kingdoms as the perfect stage for Cinemagia’s reveal. Like Bhutan and filmmaking, the Roman high jeweller too is a source of enchantment. Just as the cinema transports you to adventures of infinite possibilities, from mysteries on board luxury trains to falling down rabbit holes, so does a series of stories told in stones with all the glitter of fantasy. Who would turn down the chance to wear a dream?
This article first appeared on Sept 30, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.